Exploring the multiple meanings behind a New Testament “political cartoon.”

In one of the strangest stories in the Gospels, Jesus delivers a demon-oppressed man, only to send the demon(s) into a herd of pigs, which promptly charges down a cliff and drowns in the sea. You can read it in Mark 5:1–20, and it’s just as bizarre as it sounds.

I remember an older pastor telling me the three questions he’d been asked most often during his 40 years of ministry: What happens when you die? Can I lose my salvation? And what’s the deal with the pigs?

Faced with strange passages like this, it is easy to reach for tenuous points of application. Jesus wanted to show people that one man is worth much more than 2,000 pigs. Mark wanted to remind us how unclean pigs are to Jewish people. Before casting out a demon, you should always ask it for its name. And so on. Even if these things are true (and some of them aren’t), they don’t really get to the heart of the story.

Instead—and this is the case for many passages in Scripture—it is helpful to read the story at three levels. There is always an individual level to biblical texts: What is happening to the particular people in this story? Why? What was it like for them? How does God reveal himself to them? What do we learn from it all? Read like that, Mark 5 is a lovely story of freedom for a damaged man, but the bit about the pigs is still pretty baffling.

Then again, scriptural passages can also be read at the national level. Where are we in Israel’s history? In which phase of the biblical narrative—Eden, Election, Exodus, Empire, Exile, Easter, End—does this story appear? Which covenant is in view? How does the passage shed light on what is happening to Israel (or any other nations represented) through this …

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